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Forty-two years later, Cream's still fresh

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In fall 1971, I was listening to typical rock ‘n’ roll fare for someone my age: Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, Zappa, the Doors, Mountain, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, and CSNY come immediately to mind.

One Saturday afternoon, browsing through the cutout LP bin at the local W.T. Grant store, I happened on the first live Cream record. I knew Cream from the single “Sunshine of Your Love”—who didn’t?—but didn’t have any of their music. Since albums in the cutout bin were 99 cents, I figured I’d give them a shot.

The album’s first song, “NSU,” is 10 minutes, 12 seconds long. It starts with a standard verse, chorus, verse, chorus: nothing new there. But then the band launches itself into improvisational orbit. Cream’s damn-the-torpedoes jams were like no other band’s. The band was made up of three of the British music scene’s top players (thus the band’s name): Jack Bruce on bass, Peter “Ginger” Baker on drums, and Eric Clapton on guitar. Each had made a name for himself in different bands. And here they were, three stars on one stage, each trying to play his way into the spotlight, yet each somehow at the same time playing along with the others to keep the song unified in a brilliantly chaotic way.

I had never heard anything like it. The Allman Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore East has a couple of longer songs than “NSU,” but none of Cream’s ferocity. In 1967, when Clapton was playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, a fan had spray-painted “Clapton is God” on a train station mall in London. On “NSU,” recorded in 1968, Clapton shows why.

At the same time, Bruce could match the lightning-fingered Clapton note for note, riff for riff. And Baker was, in the words of a magazine profile at the time, “the devil himself with drumsticks.” Yet all three are playing so brilliantly that it’s impossible to focus on one of them for very long.

After about eight minutes of power-packed fireworks, the band slowed, then almost stopped, just long enough for me to wonder what was coming. Suddenly, the band was back at the very beginning of the song: verse, chorus, and then the end of the song. It was as if the song had been a comet, its orbit shaped like a fat cigar, winding up where it had started. In the slang of the time, it was mind-blowing.

Much of the music I liked back then hasn’t held up particularly well. Yet as I’m writing this, Cream’s live version of the great Willie Dixon’s blues song “Spoonful” is blasting. It sounds fresh, vital, insistent; I can only imagine how it shook the music landscape when the album it’s on, “Wheels of Fire,” was released in 1968.

My musical collection contains several hundred records and CDs, but Cream remains at the center of it all. I can pull out any one of the band’s records at any time and enjoy it. I may go months without hearing Cream, but then one day, my mental jukebox starts the day with Cream’s cover of the William Bell/Booker T. Jones song “Born Under a Bad Sign,” or Cream classics like “Badge” or “Crossroads,” and I know it’s going to be a good day.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2013 11:56 pm (UTC)
Love the image of the comet. I always come away from these posts with a new appreciation for the musicians you're writing about. Thanks.
Mar. 26th, 2013 02:52 am (UTC)
Glad you like 'em. Thanks!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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